Abandon the script, then we can have some real dialogue

21st December 2007 at 00:00
I recognise that the Government is serious about raising standards, and to do so it probably realises the need to encourage creativity, calculated risk-taking, diversity and innovation. But the success of this policy will partly depend on the Government curbing its unreasonable, almost paranoid obsession with targets and the measurement of performance between key stages 1 and 2.

During inspections, there is so much attention given to both Fischer Family Trust and RAISEonline. Why? Is it because the Government thinks that the standards agenda will only stay firmly at the forefront of teachers' minds if we feel the constant pressure of value added and results? I suppose it would be naive of them to assume we'd want to raise standards merely because of our professionalism. Clearly, they can't take that risk and so need a mechanism to ensure high-quality provision and outcomes.

But the current system used to judge the effectiveness of schools doesn't work. It relies too heavily on end-of-key stage results to assess children's performance against pre-determined definitions of achievement and is therefore in danger of becoming counter-productive. Does anyone really believe that contexts can be matched so precisely, that tests are so refined and marking so accurate that one school can truly be compared with another?

If we are to make judgments about the level of skills children attain, I would argue that these can be taught through a creative and innovative curriculum, which children can then apply in test situations. At Cherry Orchard Primary School we think so, and over three years ago we reviewed our curriculum accordingly and were pleased when Ofsted recently judged it to be "outstanding". It is now more experiential and matched to the interests of our children, and we fight relentlessly - if not always successfully - against teaching to a narrow focus on SATs.

It is important, however, to balance this concern over teaching to the test against the need to strive for every mark available, since inspectors attach a great deal of importance to tests when judging the performance of a school. At Cherry Orchard, we make every effort to maintain or improve our above-average standards at level four plus, which is a good achievement considering our baseline on entry was identified by Ofsted as being below that of national expectations. Our worry is that a dip in performance by one cohort might cause us to drop from "good" and "outstanding" to "satisfactory" or worse.

So what can the Government do to encourage a less compliant and more genuinely professional attitude to develop? I believe it needs to provide a climate where there is less worry about performance, and where more opportunities exist for real investment in the way children learn, with appropriate use of teacher assessment and professional judgments.

If the Government could do this, we would be on the way to ensuring that 21st-century schools are diverse and genuinely match the needs of pupils, unconstrained by the incompatibility of a one-size-fits-all testing system.

This does not mean letting a "thousand flowers bloom", which so scares the Government because it would mean they couldn't micro-manage the system. I agree there should be a process of inspection that holds schools to account. But that process should also ensure there are opportunities and time for a professional and developmental conversation between schools and inspectors.

My experience over three successful inspections tells me that, on an individual basis, some inspectors are keen to have a professional dialogue with schools. But this is not accomplished by one day of dashing around school and looking at data from, what I suspect is, a pre-determined script.

Sue Robinson, Headteacher, Cherry Orchard Primary School, Birmingham.

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